Our Visit to Samoa – Pacific Islands

Our Visit to Samoa
By Evan Burge

July 2001
Just where is Samoa, and why would you want to go there?

Samoa is an independent state on part of an archipelago in mid-Pacific, a third of the way from New Zealand to Hawaii, about 14° south of the equator and just over the International Date Line. The western end of the Samoan island of Savaii has the world’s last sunset each day. Samoa (pronounced “SAH-moa” with a long first syllable) is hot and humid but not unbearable (29°), and there are sea breezes in the afternoons. Swimming is a joy. My wife Barbara and I went there for two weeks in July 2001. The Lonely Planet Guide “South Pacific” can be confidently recommended, and also gives cheaper options than the ones we chose.

Samoa is beautiful, fascinating in its culture and history, and has the most delightful people – 180,000 of them. Many more have settled elsewhere, especially NZ where the men are in demand as rugby players. Outside the capital, Apia, they live mainly in 400 coastal villages around the two larger islands (Upolu and Savaii), with small numbers leading a conservative Polynesian life on two small islands (Manono and Apolima) that lie between the two larger ones.

A popular game is kirikiti (cricket), played by very large teams using a ball and a long bat resembling a baseball bat, but with a triangular cross-section. Only the local people understand the rules. It is a marvellous example of the “inculturation” of a cultural import.

The islands are volcanic and mountainous and, I would think, a challenge to walkers. Upolu is surrounded by turquoise water and a coral reef, while Savaii, the largest and most westerly island, has a reef along about a third of its coastline. Savaii also has the remains of large lava flows dating from less than a century ago. On both islands there are lovely beaches and superb snorkelling in many places. The coral is easily accessible by wading out (I wore sandals as coral is sharp). Close to the harbour in Apia is a magnificent marine reserve with many kinds of coral and all manner of brightly coloured fish.

Apia, the capital, on Upolu is the only town of any size (about 45, 000). It is slightly decayed, in an appealingly tropical way. It is now up-to-date in one uninculturated way: it has Big Macs and a modest set of golden arches – a place where the coffee is reasonable and the toilets are clean. There are colourful buses that go around the coast and across the centre and follow a whimsical timetable. They have hard wooden seats. These buses are cheap, crowded, fun to ride on, and offer a welcome breeze through the open windows. As well as using the buses we hired a car for two days on each of the large islands, and so could visit the fine inland waterfalls and mountain scenery without the risk of having to walk home.

Famous is Aggie Grey’s large and delightful timber hotel in Apia dating from the late 19th century, where we stayed. Each Wednesday night the staff put on a fiafia, a traditional song and dance show, after a lavish smorgasbord in the dining room. Many people come from outside Aggie’s for this, and you need to arrive early. The dining room is in the form of a large fale or meeting hall with open sides, carved pillars and beams and traditional cloth hangings in attractive colours and patterns – red, brown and yellow. The surrounding gardens are fragrant and delightful to see.

Every morning in Apia at 7.45am the local police force in blue shirts, white helmets and dark lava lavas, march from their headquarters to the parliament building – accompanied by their brass band. The band is very good. One morning we joined a small crowd and marched along with them. At 8am there is a ceremony of flag-raising, which I found stirring.

Samoa was known until 1997 as “Western Samoa”. It is distinct from “American Samoa” (capital Pago Pago) 130 km to the east, which, while sharing a common Polynesian language and way of life, is governed by the USA and uses American currency.

Western Samoa was easily captured by New Zealand from the Germans soon after the outbreak of WW I, after a hint/order from the British Foreign Office. People came from all over the area to cheer the NZ victory parade. From the victors they caught a virulent form of influenza. It wiped out a third of the population.

After this tragic start, NZ continued to administer Samoa as a protectorate until 1962, when Samoa became the first Polynesian country to gain independence. The matai, or chiefs (they may include women), are all-powerful and are held in awe. Landholding is by large family groups according to custom. After being in Samoa it is easy to see why Fiji has had such problems when its Indian population expects to share government democratically, ignoring the hereditary Polynesian traditions and rights.

Most people speak Polynesian, but English is widespread in education, official signs, commerce and government. As we walked around the tiny island of Manono (reached by hiring a boat and boatman, in our case by telephone), we called into a primary school and found that even in these out-of-the-way conservative villages the classes are bi-lingual. Most Samoans are literate in both languages.

Walking around Manono takes only one hour, but we climbed a mountain in a vain search for a prehistoric mound, and the walk took us 2½ hours. We should have hired a guide. There is a centre there for ecologically sensitive tourism, where I would like to stay another time. I was astonished to learn that the Samoan islands have been inhabited since the 2nd millennium BC, and the large star-shaped mounds that eluded us in several places (being buried under trees and vines) are contemporary with the Mycenaean Age of Greece.

Behind Apia is Vailima, the elegant timber home (redwood from California) for the last four years of his life of Robert Louis Stevenson. Since his death in 1894 – he was only 44 – this house has served as the centre for the German administration and then as Government House for the NZ governor, and later still as the residence of the indigenous Samoan Head of State. Wonderfully restored it is now a delightful museum, with many rooms furnished as Stevenson and his wife used them.

Before visiting it, we toiled up Mt Vaea to the grave of both Robert Louis and his wife Fanny – a steep and, for us at 68, quite arduous climb along wet and slippery paths. We were rewarded with a cool shady view of Apia, the mountains and the coast. In peace we contemplated the writer’s famous epitaph:

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Vailima is now the name of the local beer. Further inland (we went by taxi) is one of the world’s seven Baha’i temples, an elegant and lofty parabolic dome with little decoration. It was designed by an Iranian architect and is set in extensive gardens. I’d love to hear a choir sing “Palestrina” in here. The walls carry brief messages of peace and unity, written in Polynesian and English, such as Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

We flew from Apia to Savaii in a small plane and then went in a small bus to Le Lagoto (pron. Langoto – the sunset), where we had one of four beach cabins (each with shower, toilet and some cooking facilities). From the veranda you could step on to the beach and then into the water of a lovely lagoon. “Paradise” is the word that comes to mind, even if you prefer to avoid cliches.

A hired car enabled us to visit the solidified black lava flows and the spectacular Taga (=Tanga) blowholes. Throw a coconut into the hole in the rock – and watch it shoot high into the air on a jet of water – or at least pay the man, who is sure to appear, a Tala (Samoan dollar) or two. He’ll show how it is done. Elsewhere there’s a high, suspended treetop walk that takes you up into an enormous banyan tree. This is not for acrophobes, but we managed it, nervously, one at a time. Incidentally, the traditional landholders expect a donation of a few Talas if you park on their land; for instance, to visit a waterfall or a beach. They do not have many other sources of income, so we paid cheerfully.

There are numerous churches all round the coast (Congregationalist and Methodist 60%, R Catholic 21%, Mormon 10%) and I believe they are all crowded every Sunday. Every evening, a gong sounds in each village, and everything stops for prayer for about 15 minutes. Tourists are expected to stop too. The Samoan radio stations, however, play continuous Christian songs of an evangelical kind with sophisticated jazzy accompaniments. I am sure the disks are supplied free in great numbers from America. No Mozart or Haydn, or even Polynesian music on the air here, so far as I could discover. It is, however, wonderful when the people sing themselves, which they do often and in natural harmony. The local Congregational minister brought his large youth group to Le Lagoto to put on a fiafia for us – traditional and unaffectedly joyous.

Margaret Meade’s enticing picture of widespread free-love without guilt in Samoa has no factual basis and is thoroughly discredited these days. It is, however, easy to understand where the Europeans of the 18th century gained their idea of “the noble savage” uncorrupted by Western civilisation. The Samoan people must, in general, be among the happiest in the world. (Alas, I have since learned that about 26, mainly women, commit suicide each year.) Certainly we had two exceptionally happy weeks among them.


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